Although adoption is today practiced globally, the United States has the largest number of children adopted per 100 live births. The table below provides a snapshot of Western adoption rates. Adoption in the United States still occurs at nearly three times those of its peers although the number of children awaiting adoption has held steady in recent years, hovering between 133,000 and 129,000 during the period 2002 to 2006.
Several factors affect the decision to release or raise the child. White adolescents tend to give up their babies to non-relatives, whereas black adolescents are more likely to receive support from their own community in raising the child and also in the form of informal adoption by relatives. Studies by Leynes and by Festinger and Young, Berkman, and Rehr found that for pregnant adolescents, the decision to release the child for adoption depended on the attitude toward adoption held by the adolescent's mother. Another study found that pregnant adolescents whose mothers had a higher level of education were more likely to release their babies for adoption. Research suggests that women who choose to release their babies for adoption are more likely to be younger, enrolled in school, and have lived in a two-parent household at age 10, than those who kept and raised their babies.
Reform and family preservation efforts have also been strongly associated with the perceived misuse of adoption. In some cases, parents' rights have been terminated when their ethnic or socio-economic group has been deemed unfit by society. Some of these practices were generally accepted but have later been considered abusive; others were uncontroversially reprehensible.
The period 1945 to 1974, the baby scoop era, saw rapid growth and acceptance of adoption as a means to build a family. Illegitimate births rose three-fold after World War II, as sexual mores changed. Simultaneously, the scientific community began to stress the dominance of nurture over genetics, chipping away at eugenic stigmas. In this environment, adoption became the obvious solution for both unwed people and infertile couples.
The research says that the dysfunction, untruths and evasiveness that can be present in adoptive families not only makes identity formation impossible, but also directly works against it. What effect on identity formation is present if the adoptee knows they are adopted but has no information about their biological parents? Silverstein and Kaplan's research states that adoptees lacking medical, genetic, religious, and historical information are plagued by questions such as "Who am I?" "Why was I born?" "What is my purpose?" This lack of identity may lead adoptees, particularly in adolescent years, to seek out ways to belong in a more extreme fashion than many of their non-adopted peers. Adolescent adoptees are overrepresented among those who join sub-cultures, run away, become pregnant, or totally reject their families.
Infertility is the main reason parents seek to adopt children they are not related to. One study shows this accounted for 80% of unrelated infant adoptions and half of adoptions through foster care. Estimates suggest that 11–24% of Americans who cannot conceive or carry to term attempt to build a family through adoption, and that the overall rate of ever-married American women who adopt is about 1.4%. Other reasons people adopt are numerous although not well documented. These may include wanting to cement a new family following divorce or death of one parent, compassion motivated by religious or philosophical conviction, to avoid contributing to overpopulation out of the belief that it is more responsible to care for otherwise parent-less children than to reproduce, to ensure that inheritable diseases (e.g., Tay–Sachs disease) are not passed on, and health concerns relating to pregnancy and childbirth. Although there are a range of possible reasons, the most recent study of experiences of women who adopt suggests they are most likely to be 40–44 years of age, currently married, have impaired fertility, and childless.
Identity is defined both by what one is and what one is not. Adoptees born into one family lose an identity and then borrow one from the adopting family. The formation of identity is a complicated process and there are many factors that affect its outcome. From a perspective of looking at issues in adoption circumstances, the people involved and affected by adoption (the biological parent, the adoptive parent and the adoptee) can be known as the "triad members and state". Adoption may threaten triad members' sense of identity. Triad members often express feelings related to confused identity and identity crises because of differences between the triad relationships. Adoption, for some, precludes a complete or integrated sense of self. Triad members may experience themselves as incomplete, deficient, or unfinished. They state that they lack feelings of well-being, integration, or solidity associated with a fully developed identity.
The nobility of the Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic cultures that dominated Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire denounced the practice of adoption. In medieval society, bloodlines were paramount; a ruling dynasty lacking a "natural-born" heir apparent was replaced, a stark contrast to Roman traditions. The evolution of European law reflects this aversion to adoption. English Common Law, for instance, did not permit adoption since it contradicted the customary rules of inheritance. In the same vein, France's Napoleonic Code made adoption difficult, requiring adopters to be over the age of 50, sterile, older than the adopted person by at least 15 years, and to have fostered the adoptee for at least six years. Some adoptions continued to occur, however, but became informal, based on ad hoc contracts. For example, in the year 737, in a charter from the town of Lucca, three adoptees were made heirs to an estate. Like other contemporary arrangements, the agreement stressed the responsibility of the adopted rather than adopter, focusing on the fact that, under the contract, the adoptive father was meant to be cared for in his old age; an idea that is similar to the conceptions of adoption under Roman law.
Previous research on adoption has led to assumptions that indicate that there is a heightened risk in terms of psychological development and social relationships for adoptees. Yet, such assumptions have been clarified as flawed due to methodological failures. But more recent studies have been supportive in indicating more accurate information and results about the similarities, differences and overall lifestyles of adoptees.
As the idea of institutional care gained acceptance, formal rules appeared about how to place children into families: boys could become apprenticed to an artisan and girls might be married off under the institution's authority. Institutions informally adopted out children as well, a mechanism treated as a way to obtain cheap labor, demonstrated by the fact that when the adopted died, their bodies were returned by the family to the institution for burial.
His solution was outlined in The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children (1859) which started the Orphan Train movement. The orphan trains eventually shipped an estimated 200,000 children from the urban centers of the East to the nation's rural regions. The children were generally indentured, rather than adopted, to families who took them in. As in times past, some children were raised as members of the family while others were used as farm laborers and household servants. The sheer size of the displacement—the largest migration of children in history—and the degree of exploitation that occurred, gave rise to new agencies and a series of laws that promoted adoption arrangements rather than indenture. The hallmark of the period is Minnesota's adoption law of 1917 which mandated investigation of all placements and limited record access to those involved in the adoption.